After The Ax

Following decades of unbridled clear-cutting, a tiny Caribbean island begins its botanical comeback

The powerboat gently glides up on the soft white sands of No Name Beach. It is an idyllic setting, one that conjures up thoughts of the quintessential, deserted Caribbean island. The crew aboard enthusiastically talks about their precious cargo in the local language of Papiamentu. There are pots of Watapana (Caesalpinia coriaria), Pal’sia blanku (Bursera karsteniana), and Watakeli (Bourreria succulenta). These native seedlings will be planted today and join a thousand other endemic starter trees established here in the past few years.

photo of a woman pushing a wheelbarrow full of potted plants in a denuded tropical landscapephoto Patrick HolianElsmarie Beukenboom has dedicated herself to reforesting
the Caribbean island of Little Bonaire.

“I expect to plant one thousand more trees in each of the next two seasons,” says Elsmarie Beukenboom, project director from STINAPA, the national park organization on the Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire. “We are planting only native plants. We want to restore the forest that used to be here on Klein Bonaire. That is our goal.”

Klein Bonaire (or Little Bonaire) is just over two square miles and only a half-mile away from its larger sister island of Bonaire, which is home to 18,000 people. While these two islands are known internationally for the world-class reefs surrounding them, they also shelter over 200 species of birds. Both islands are important for local species and countless migratory birds that fly annually between North and South America. Beukenboom chose Klein Bonaire for this reforestation project because it has two major advantages over its big sister – no goats and no human residents.

Unlike many Caribbean islands that were exploited for their potential to grow sugar, the arid ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao) to the south and their small offshore islets lacked the rich soil and rainfall necessary to produce abundant crops. Rather, these islands provided grazing for goats, produced aloe vera, and supplied valuable wood for Holland. During the 1800s Klein Bonaire was denuded of most of its vegetation. Trees, often a foot thick in diameter, were systematically cut down. Some were used to produce fine, durable furniture. Brazilwood was taken for its red dye, which the Dutch used on their canvas sails as a deterrence to mold. Lignum vitae, locally called Palu santu (the saint tree), was chosen for boat rudders due its strength, and for pulley blocks used in hoisting sails. This oily wood was ideal because of its self-lubricating properties. Many other trees were cut down to produce charcoal, a major export at the time. Once goats were introduced, what was left of the old forest had no chance of rejuvenation. After the ax, Klein Bonaire became a scrub island and much of its nurturing soil eroded into the sea.

The landscape that Beukenboom chose for the reforestation project is brutal. Hard limestone and hot sand make up the substrate. The climate is dry with an annual rainfall average of less than 22 inches per year. “I find it amazing how resilient these plants are,” says Beukenboom. “Klein has tough conditions with times of no water or too much water after a storm. Somehow they manage to grow through the heat and wind. But water is always the biggest challenge here. We need to water the baby trees for the first six months after planting to get them established. After that, they must rely on the natural rainfall.”

Initially STINAPA rangers had the arduous task of hauling 55-gallon drums of water to the island by boat. Then serendipity took over. “I knew from scanning historic maps of Klein that three natural wells existed before,” says Beukenboom. “Then one day while walking around … I saw a feral cat rise up out of the ground. I went over and discovered that it had come out of one of the old wells.”

In no time a solar-powered pump was installed. That system delivers well water to two plastic cisterns at a place now called “The Eco-Lodge.” This rustic base camp is the work center for Beukenboom and her team of volunteers. They fill recycled half-gallon plastic bottles with water gravity-fed from the elevated cisterns, load them into wheelbarrows, and manually water each newly planted seedling. Over the six-month nursing period, each tree will receive 17 gallons of water. This gritty, hands-on operation, supported by small grants and in-kind contributions, has been successful only because of a dedicated team of volunteers.

Even the Royal Dutch Army pitched in, clearing the terrain of faster-growing invasive plants that would compete with the native trees. The soldiers also jackhammered one hundred holes into the tough limestone in a part of the island appropriately called “The Rough Side.” The holes were filled with soil that was brought over to the island by boat, and seedlings were planted in them.

In addition to hand watering, the project is using the Waterboxx, a clever plastic device that collects nighttime condensation and slowly feeds the gathered water to seedlings through a wick. The box also protects the baby trees from sun and pests. Currently, there are only 10 Waterboxx units on Klein Bonaire, but the Prins Bernhard Nature Fund for the Dutch Caribbean has just contributed 100 more for the project. The boxes can be reused up to five times.

Gradually, this tiny island is experiencing a botanical transformation. “Plants from 2006, our first planting, are now three to four meters tall,” Beukenboom says. “We’ve had reforestation experts come here to see the project. When I tell them we have a 70 percent success rate with our seedlings, they can’t believe it. I learned that for this type of environment 30 percent is more the norm. So we must be doing something right.” The volunteers also planted Kadushi, a local columnar cactus that provides two species of bats with nectar. In turn, these bats pollinate the cacti. The cactus and bats are keystone species on which a dozen other organisms are dependent. By the time the project is completed in fall 2016, about 1 percent of the island will have been replanted with native vegetation. After that the young trees will be left on their own to establish themselves. The hope is that birds will be attracted to these plants and propagate more vegetation over time by spreading their seeds.

The success of Klein Bonaire’s reforestation efforts offers hope to other islands in the southern Caribbean, like Aruba and Curaçao, which have been similarly denuded of their native vegetation.

Beukenboom has no illusions that this island’s botanical landscape will resemble what it looked like before human intervention. There are no records of exactly what a wild Klein Bonaire looked like. She does, however, have a vision of what it may look like in the near future. “All we can do is try to bring the island back so that over 40 or 50 years, people can at least have a little bit of an idea what it might have looked like 400 years ago. This project is important for future generations as well as the wildlife. I may not see the results of this effort in my lifetime. But I take children now to Klein to help me plant the trees there. They are the ones who are going to be walking with their children here in years to come. And they will tell their kids about how they helped Elsmarie with planting and watering these trees. This is for them.”

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